Dust is one of those things that is hard to get away from. We create dust in nearly everything we do. Many types of work create dust, particularly within the construction and mining industries, but most people encounter dusty environments at work from time to time.
Fine, dry powder consisting of tiny particles of earth or waste matter lying on the ground or on surfaces or carried in the air.
There are two types of dust:
Nuisance dust is just that, a nuisance. In large quantities, it can make breathing difficult, and cause irritation to the nose and throat. It can also get in the eyes and cause visibility issues.
Generally, this type of dust makes work uncomfortable, and less safe due to its presence.
Nuisance dust is still a hazard that should be controlled. Exposure to any dust in excessive amounts can create breathing problems. A dusty workplace may also create slip hazards, clog up buttons, or block up ventilation, filters or other safety measures.
Hazardous dust is a dust type that, if inhaled, can cause damage to health, above and beyond irritation.
Certain dust, such as flour dust and some wood dust, for example, are known to cause occupational asthma.
Other hazardous dust can cause fatal and debilitating illnesses when inhaled, such as cancer, including asbestos dust and silica dust.
Here are some examples of hazardous dust that can be fatal:
Recent research by the HSE estimates that silica dust is responsible for the deaths of 500 construction workers each year. Asbestos is an even bigger killer, an estimated 5000 people die each year in the UK as a result of past asbestos exposure. Workers exposed to wood dust are four times more likely to develop asthma, and it can also cause cancer.
While none of these types of dust will kill you immediately, exposure today could kill you in the future. Some lung diseases, for example, asbestosis or silicosis take years and even decades to develop.
If you work in a dusty atmosphere, it is important to take adequate precautions to prevent dust exposure causing you health problems. You need to protect yourself, and your future.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations cover dust, and some, such as silica dust have a workplace exposure limit (WEL). This is a legal limit for the maximum amount of dust you can be exposed to over a normal working day.
Asbestos is so high risk, it has its own set of regulations, the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations.
Employers have a duty to provide a safe place of work at all time, and this includes controlling dust exposure.
Ideally, the dust should be eliminated altogether, and this may be possible by doing the job a different way, or by using different equipment or materials. For example, could you order materials in the right size, ready to use? This can eliminate cutting on site.
Using power tools to cut, grind and drill creates high levels of dust. If materials are cut to size in a controlled manufacturing environment, with specialist extraction and dust control, it can eliminate dust in your workplace.
It is not always possible to eliminate dust, and so if it cannot be eliminated it should be controlled.
Dust should be controlled at the source as much as possible. It is harder to control dust once it becomes airborne. Clouds of dust can quickly spread filling the entire workplace and entering nearby areas. Control measures such as extract ventilation, tenting the dust source to contain it, or damping down the material can be implemented to prevent dust exposure and spread.
Once you have tried to control the dust at the source, any remaining dust exposure should be assessed. If you are still likely to be exposed to dust, PPE should be provided for protection.
The type of PPE required will depend on the exposure type. A facepiece or dust mask may be sufficient, or a full face respirator may be necessary.
It is important to remember that dust does not just affect the respiratory systems, and depending on the type of dust you may also need to protect your eyes and skin from irritation.
Depending on the type of dust and hazards involved, you may need to take extra precautions. For example, with asbestos work, it is vital that you prevent asbestos dust and fibres spreading to other areas. Enclosures, specialist cleaning, and full body overalls are required. Contaminated items will need to be cleaned or disposed of appropriately.
Cleaning up can create a risk of repeat exposure. Once the dust has settled on surfaces, dry sweeping can disturb and lift the dust back into the air. Consider vacuuming or wet brushing instead, to prevent further dust clouds.
If you’re having trouble breathing at work due to dust:
Dust may not hurt you today, but it can kill your future. Download the dust toolbox talk and raise the awareness of dust risks to your team.